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President Wilson: Irish, Refugees, Others Welcome at Mines

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology President Heather Wilson sent the following warm spring break wishes to her staff yesterday. The e-mail is a response to a wave of white-supremacist posters that began appearing on her campus (and, according to President Wilson, two other campuses in South Dakota) last weekend:

Heather Wilson, decent human being
Heather Wilson, decent human being

“No Irish Need Apply”

That was the sign in many New England shop windows that faced my great grandmother, Annie Skalley, when she came to America from County Cork in the late 1800s.

Some time ago, my cousin Carol found one of those signs in a flea market and had it framed. It hung in her kitchen as an ironic reminder of how far our family had come in three short generations.

Carol’s father, the son of Italian immigrants, had enlisted in the U.S. Army and had been a medic in the Battle of the Bulge. A member of the greatest generation, he came home after the war to open a drug store that served our small town for decades. When he married my Aunt Anne, named after Annie Skalley, it was quite controversial for an Irish girl to marry an Italian boy. He endured his share of insults, which I won’t share here.

With every wave of immigration in America, some have promoted the fiction that the only ones who belong here, the only ones who really contribute to this remarkable country, the only “real” Americans, are people who look and sound and speak and pray like the person we see when we look in the bathroom mirror in the morning.

But when we set aside our fears and our pride, and look around us, we know that’s just not true.

Here, at the School of Mines, we prepare leaders in engineering and science and we advance the world’s knowledge. Some of these young leaders gather in the Newman Center on Sunday nights; others pray five times a day facing Mecca. Our exceptional students are the descendants of slaves and the descendants of Norwegian farmers. Some are indigenous here, others arrived as refugees from wars that still rage. They are the children of wealthy parents who have been provided every opportunity, and the children of unknown fathers who have aged out of foster care. As faculty and staff we have similar winding paths that brought us to this place.

All of us are part of the rich tapestry of talent that will help solve the great challenges of the twenty-first century. Each of us deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Many of you are aware that over the past week someone has been placing posters around campus that remind me of the signs Annie Skalley saw as a girl. The same posters have shown up on at least two other college campuses in South Dakota. A lot of you may not have seen them at all, and are wondering why I’m writing this email to you. I’m writing because some of you have seen them, and have been deeply offended by them. When posters from outside groups appear on our campus, they are taken down, as is our standard policy.

The appropriate response to an objectionable idea is a better idea articulately conveyed. It is to reach out to our friends and colleagues and students and let them know – very explicitly – that we are glad they are here. It is to share our stories, share a meal, share a smile, share a word of welcome. We work together to solve hard problems and discover new things. We do so joyfully with friends who have different stories from our own.

One of our very successful alumni is Peter Stephans. Peter escaped from Hungary in 1956 and came to South Dakota, barely able to speak English. I met him shortly after I became the President of Mines at the company he now owns outside Cleveland. We drove in his sports car to have lunch at his country club. When the lovely meal was finished, I asked this very successful CEO what he remembered about the School of Mines, and his eyes filled with tears. “They welcomed me,” he said. “I had nothing. I was just a boy, a refugee very far from home. And they welcomed me.”

That is who we are. And no poster hung in the dark of night will change the fundamental decency of who we choose to be.

Have a pleasant and restful spring break. Please take some time with each other in the coming days, and with our students when they come back, for conversation and fellowship, each in your own way. That will make all the difference.

Warm Regards,

Heather Ann Wilson

President [e-mail to students, faculty, and staff, obtained by DFP 2017.03.03]

Boy, for someone nominated for the Trump Cabinet, that’s a heck of a letter. The current Administration could use more of that kind of fundamental decency.


  1. John 2017-03-04

    Great email & article. Thanks for sharing. (And funny clip that probably could be made this week in the halls of the South Dakota capitol or in a Senate hearing room.)

    “They welcomed me.” Students might reflect on the setting causing Peter Stephans to be a refuge in 1956. Hungary was an Axis Power and with Germany and Austria, invaded the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, etc. The Soviets beat and invaded Hungary. From 1945 to 1949 the Soviets set up puppet satellite nations on their western border facing Germany. The communists purged the nation, its institutions, of its non-communist leaders, made Russian an official language, etc., et al. Public tensions grew. The Hungarian Revolution violently over-through the government and lasted 18 days. The Revolution was a major threat to Soviet iron-hand control of its satellites. Soviet tanks & troops re-invaded, ending the uprising. Over 3,200 were killed. Hundreds were executed. Tens of thousands were imprisoned, some were shipped to Russia never to be heard from. Between 200,000 to 250,000 fled Hungary. There was little hope for having a future, merely an existence, in Hungary from about 1945 to the mid-1970s. We have one life. Stephan and other refuges vote with their feet to live it. We must welcome them.

  2. C Brechtelsbauer 2017-03-04

    Wow! That’s a gorgeous letter she wrote!

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